Noah Baumbach has a knack for
extremely well-written portrayals of unpleasant characters who find
themselves in transformative situations. Beyond his enjoyable
collaborations with Wes Anderson, Baumbach's own films (The Squid and
the Whale, Margot at the
noteworthy for their novelistic approach to character and a fine understanding
of interpersonal dynamics. While Baumbach's newest film,
Greenberg, carries these hallmarks, but in a watered-down form,
and it does not develop its characters as richly and respectfully as
we have come to expect. Anchored by an outstanding performance
by Ben Stiller, Greenberg succeeds as a study of a deeply flawed
man, but it fails to reach beyond that to credibly and fully portray
the impact of this terrifyingly off-putting person on the people around
Roger Greenberg (Stiller) has
just been released from a stay in a New York mental hospital, and arrives
in LA for some R&R at his brother's mansion while the brother
and his family vacation in Vietnam. While in Los Angeles, Roger
reconnects with his old friend Ivan (Rhys Ifans), with whom he once
led a promising rock band, and begins a tentative, hurtful affair with
his brother's assistant Florence (Greta Gerwig). Both relationships
are damaged by Roger's inability to communicate directly and honestly.
In a turn of events that sounds like something out of The Journey of
his brother's sick dog serves as the catalyst by which Roger gains
at least a little understanding of the limitations of his own personality.
As usual, Baumbach excels at
developing characters with fundamental flaws who may or may not be beyond
redemption or rehabilitation - and who may or may not be capable of
what we'd consider "healthy" relationships. With Ben Stiller's
help, Roger Greenberg may be the filmmaker's most indelibly unpleasant
creation - a self-hating, self-destructive, obsessive, passive-aggressive,
sneaky, sad loner who thwarts his own instincts and is incapable of
behaving in a manner considerate of others. Roger is a well-crafted
and generally unique personage, and Stiller breathes a restrained, dryly
witty life into him.
Although great care has been
afforded the film's titular character, less attention has been allotted
to the dynamic relationships that move the film forward and, at least
ostensibly, result in the maturation of Roger's character arc.
His friend Ivan is experiencing his own rough patch: he is in the middle
of a trial separation from his wife, and this is a strain upon his relationship
with his young son. Ifans, as Ivan, evinces a quiet suffering
that serves as an effective counterpoint to Roger's obnoxious self-loathing,
and in a scene toward the film's end, he forces Roger to confront
the ways in which they have grown apart - and the enormous chasm that
separates the ways in which they choose to deal with life's less fortunate
moments. It's an effective scene, but it ends on a less-than-satisfying
note, with Roger shouting a bunch of unearned, self-serving nonsense
back at Ivan. I wanted Ivan's speech to have a greater impact
upon Roger's perception of himself, but the script allows him to backslide
into defensive justification.
More crucial to the ultimately
dissatisfying experience of Greenberg is the role of Florence.
Greta Gerwig has received broad acclaim for her performance, and I won't
say that her portrayal is devoid of charm. It is, however, somewhat
baffling. For the first half-hour or so of the movie, I thought
Florence was supposed to be developmentally disabled in some way.
Something about Gerwig's delivery and manner makes her seem... slow;
there's also a moment early in the film when she is at a party with
a friend who seems a little overly-protective, as if Florence required
an extra-watchful eye. But even more confusing is why Florence
is drawn, against all sane reason, to Roger, even after he repeatedly
goes out of his way to render any sort of "real" relationship impossible.
At one point, Florence tells Roger, "You like me so much more than
you think you do," which comes across as one of the most idiotic lines
of dialogue in recent memory and one that could only be written by someone
who has spent way too much time in either Brooklyn or Silver Lake.
In the context of the film's story, they are the words of extraordinary
delusion - nobody, sane or otherwise, would want to enter into a relationship
with the poisonous Roger Greenberg, and Florence's unwavering soft
spot for him is never explored.
Greenberg is not a bad
movie. But Noah Baumbach has made better films - and will no
doubt make better ones in the future, too. Greenberg fails
to live up to his key strengths as a filmmaker, however, which revolve
around his strongly novelistic approach to dynamic relationships between
characters. Despite an excellent and absorbing performance by
Ben Stiller, Greenberg's world seems incomplete, sketchy, and
Ben Stiller's performance deserves an Oscar nomination, despite the fact that Greenberg is an unsatisfying movie with some major credibility gaps. Still, it's a film well worth seeing, at least once. Rent it.